An emergency operation Tuesday to pump thousands of gallons of radioactive water from a leaking underground storage pool at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear site stopped after workers found the pool they were transferring the fluid to was also leaking.
At least three of seven underground chambers at the site are now seeping radioactive water, leaving the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) with few options on where to store the huge amounts of contaminated runoff from the makeshift cooling systems at the nuclear power plant.
Officials had to put those systems in place after a large earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant’s regular cooling systems two years ago, causing fuel at three of its reactors to melt and prompting 160,000 people to evacuate their homes. Since then, TEPCO has been flooding the damaged reactor cores to cool and stabilize the fuel.
TEPCO has struggled to find space to store the runoff water. It initially released what it said was low-level contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean, igniting criticism. Traces of radioactive cesium ended up found in bluefin tuna caught off the California coast.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he will not allow TEPCO to release contaminated water into the ocean. But TEPCO said it already stores more than a quarter-million tons of radioactive water in hundreds of tanks at the site, or in underground pools, and the amount of runoff could double within three years.
The company has said it is building more storage space and also filters much of the runoff. But with its underground pools vulnerable to leaks, TEPCO need to find alternative answers.
Workers at the plant had been emptying the No. 2 underground pool after TEPCO found almost 32,000 gallons breached its inner plastic linings and seeped into the soil. TEPCO said the leak appeared to be the biggest since the early months after the March 2011 disaster.
But readings around the No. 1 pool, to which the remaining water from the No. 2 pool was transferring to, suggested it was also seeping water, said Masayuki Ono, general manager at TEPCO’s Nuclear Power and Plant Siting Division. The No. 3 pool also sprung a small leak on Sunday.
Ono said TEPCO did not think the contaminated water would reach the sea, since the pools lie about half a mile inland, but said he could not be sure.
Workers will now empty the No. 1 and No. 2 pools, and transfer the radioactive water to other pools. TEPCO will continue to use the No. 3 pool at less than capacity, because the leak there was minor, Ono said.
Asked whether the plant’s other underground pools might also be prone to leaking, Ono said “We are still assessing the situation.”